Meta Sutta

Last day of volunteering. The monks have exams today and we will spend our day renovating the temple, not teaching. Painting the walls surrounding the bodhi tree and pagoda in preparation for the Vesak festival in May, a breeze gently drops bodhi leaves on my head and the walls, sticky with wet paint, in time to the practiced chanting of the monks. Today’s exam is Buddhism, and they must be prepared to recite portions of the Buddha’s teachings. Concentration while we are painting seems elusive. The little ones cannot resist saying hello, observing my progress, and asking “Nick no? Dani no?” Nicholas and Dani are volunteering at the preschool this morning, and will be here at lunch, but conveying that to the little monks is impossible. I wonder if any of what they are reciting is a portion of the meta sutta, the Buddhist hymn of loving kindness:

…So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings,
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies
And downwards to the depths
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will…

I can only shake my head at the relevance of this to today’s divisive world. If only.

Five teen-age boys, not monks, chatter excitedly around the other side of the bodhi tree. Talking about what teen-age boys in Sri Lanka talk about. They are sitting for the same exams as the monks this afternoon. Red ants venture into the wet paint, to be forever enshrined at the Pirivena. I have given up trying to keep them out. Shasheen calls out to me and I look up from my work. The five boys, smartly dressed in uniforms of long white pants, long-sleeve white shirts, and white sweater vests, stand in a semi-circle, looking at me expectantly. “They want to talk to you. To practice their English.”

I spend the next 90 minutes talking to the boys, not painting. Well, to one of the boys, the only one brave enough to actually talk. The others listen, chiming in with questions in Sinhala about my age, my husband, my sons, do I have a car? do I have a house? what does it look like? The brave boy talks and talks, using up every English vocabulary word he knows. I use up every last Sinhala word I know within two sentences. I discover he is 19. He hopes for good enough marks on his exams to be admitted to university. He wants to be a school teacher in a monastery, teaching Buddhist culture. His father is 54 and his mother is 46. Like me, I smile. He doesn’t have any brothers or sisters. He had a brother but he died when he was two, maybe of a heart attack. He repeats questions, I repeat answers. He thinks hard, searching for words. The smile on my face grows as the conversation lengthens. His future students will be lucky to learn from a teacher like him.

Nicholas, Dani, and Eelke arrive from the preschool. We have one last project, to clean mold, dirt, and bodhi leaves from the top of the stupa so painting can begin next week. Because the bodhi tree is sacred, this will bring good karma to anyone who does it, ridding them of any skin conditions or disease. Good skin karma, a pleasing thought for a wrinkling painter. I am glad I can help. The big monks arrive, Buddhism books in hand. Grateful I introduced the word “gift” in conjunction with the verb “give” earlier this week, I tell Dhammissara Thero that we have gifts to give them. My monks and the little monks quickly gather. Monks do not (and cannot) have toys, and we have brought only educational materials: colored pencils, multicolored post-its, and dice with pictures instead of numbers, intended to encourage practicing their English. Especially delighted with the post-its — magic! — they label us with pink, yellow, and green notes and messages. Dani! Dani! Nik. Thank you Mrs. Krish. Giggling, a little monk labels another little monk BOOK. Some post-its secretly placed on our backs.

A bell rings, hand-rung by the head monk. Smiles disappear. 1:00 pm, time for the Buddhism exam. Suba gaman! Good luck and good-bye! Nicholas gathers his post-its, carefully places them in his front pocket, bends down to pick up one last green note from the ground, fallen from one of our backs. He straightens up, smiling, and hands me the note. “We are love Everyone.”

On our way out of the temple, one of the older monks stops us and hands us a bag. A gift for us. Full of bananas, a papaya, pears, an apple, guava. Welli thalapa, aluwa, jaggery. I cannot hold back my smile. This bag is full of much more than fruit and sweets. My second day teaching, Sumedanda Thero gave me a weralu, a Sri Lankan fruit about the size of an olive. The next day, a larger fruit – guava. My last day of teaching, an apple, a guava, and a mango, which they knew was my favorite. Today, a full bag.

We run back to the volunteer house, meet our driver, Danu. Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northern most city and a civil war zone until 2009 due to conflict with ethnic Tamils, is our adventure this weekend. Wearing a long purple sarong, slicked back long curly hair, earrings, and Ray Bans, he loads our bags into the beat up Toyota van and promptly snaps a selfie with us as we say goodbye to Eelke, Laura, Suramya and Shasheen. Our Sri Lankan family. Leaving the village, he blasts Shakira as we drive past school girls walking home in white skirts, short sleeve white shirts, and ties, long braids down their back, waving at us. School boys in their uniforms. Women walking under umbrellas, men driving tuk-tuks. Brave children yelling “Hello” and “Good-bye,” not always in the right order. The bakery. The photocopy shop where I copied my hand-written worksheets for my monks each morning.

My heart is full. Full of fruit and sweets graciously given. Full of laughter, smiles, and giggles from my student monks, orange robes swirling. Full of lunches in the Alms Hall, milk tea at tea-time, and one day, fresh guava juice. Full of writing on a chalkboard with a tiny speck of chalk. Full of welli thalapa, too many servings to count. Scrambled eggs made by Sura especially for Nicholas. Dani from Texas, Laura from Wales, and Eelke from the Netherlands. Shasheen, encouraging shy schoolboys to practice their English, himself hoping to go to Singapore to study. Curious villagers in Hanguranketa, staring, smiling, offering. All we have met along the way.

Full of Meta Sutta, loving kindness.

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